Julia Butters on ‘The Fabelmans,’ Stealing Scenes From DiCaprio and Meeting Anne Spielberg

(from left) Reggie Fabelman (Julia Butters) and Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Merie Weismiller Wallace/Univers

Although she’s just 13 years old, actor Julia Butters has already worked with Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bay, the Russo brothers and, most recently, Steven Spielberg. Her breakthrough came in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” in which she stole scenes as Trudi, a pint-sized thespian whose commitment to her craft shocks Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton out of paycheck complacency. In Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” she again plays an actor, though this time a decided amateur: Reggie, protagonist Sammy’s younger sister whom he enlists to star in his adolescent filmmaking endeavors. Butters says her own approach to performing falls somewhere between the two characters. 

“I’m a mixture of a bunch of different techniques,” she says. “Part of me is very serious and devoted. And part of me is there to make friends, and super excited to just be there.”

Calling “The Fabelmans” “one of the most emotional movies I’ve made,” Butters says she was thrilled just to receive sides from Spielberg’s longtime production shingle, Amblin. But when she landed the role of Reggie, she was emboldened by his response to her audition. “He said, ‘I think you did pretty well representing her without even knowing who she was.’” Nevertheless, she admits to feeling pressure — if self-imposed — to get her portrayal right of the sister of an acclaimed director. 

“It was definitely a challenge to not only be on a Steven Spielberg set and not geek out the entire time,” she says, “but also immortalizing his sister and bringing an essence of [Spielberg’s sister Anne] to the character.”

Upon meeting the real-life Anne, Butters says she more than lived up to the portrait Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner painted on the page. 

“She came to set for a big family scene and she just hugged me for almost a minute straight,” Butters remembers. “She’s such an elegant woman. I’m so incredibly grateful that I got to represent her.”

Given Spielberg’s pedigree with coaxing great performances from young actors, going as far back as Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” it’s no surprise that she says he not only made her feel comfortable on set, but also empowered her. “If he likes it, he’ll come out clapping and laughing, and it just makes you feel so amazing about yourself,” Butters says. “[He] was like that legendary uncle that you’ve never met, but you think is so cool — and then you meet them, and
they’re amazing.”

After recently completing filming on “Queen of Bones,” in which she stars opposite fellow acting prodigy Jacob Tremblay (“Room”), Butters says she’s been doing a lot of writing, and would love to direct or write a project in the future. Otherwise, she hopes to work with “a female director,” or Martin Scorsese (“he would be super fun to learn from,” she says), but her current plans include “a little bit of time for myself to figure out what I what I really want in this life.”

Describe her “Fabelmans” work in the context of the challenges she’s faced thus far, Butters once again invokes the ambitions of her earlier character, Trudi. “Being able to represent somebody in the in the real world and bring them to the screen to live forever, I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says. “That’s the closest I’ve gotten to a biopic so far, and that’s definitely very high on my list.” She further credits this and Tarantino’s film for preparing her for the challenges, and responsibilities, of building a career
for herself. 

“Hearing and experiencing such serious acting at such a young age really helped with how I view it and how much I take it seriously.”